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Christians, Sports and Compromise: A Brief Response

posted by Scot McKnight

I was pushed a bit Monday to weigh in on the post about Christians, Sports, and Compromise. I have to confess that it was hard for me to comprehend an author like Hoffman spending most of his life in sports and coming down so hard on sports — and I don’t want to deny Hoffman’s nuances all over the place. Having said that, here’s my take:

First, sports are a game. As such, there are rules for how that game is to be played. Once one enters onto the field — or whatever — the rules govern how that game is played. In my estimation, a sports game is a “projected” or “false” or “ideal” or “constructed” world, and no one has describes this better than A. Bartlett Giamatti in his classic book: Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games
. It is not our world but a sports world where specific rules apply. The zero-sum nature of sports is fine because it’s not the real world. There is a winner because there is a loser, and when either team walks away from the locker room the zero-sum game is over. Back to the real world. I don’t accept that a winner-loser idea within the confines of an imaginary/played world is contrary to the gospel.
This is a big point for me in evaluating sports: a sport creates a world unto itself and governed by its own rules.
Second, the game is only played fairly and well if both sides compete completely and compete in order to win: that’s what the “game” is about and it’s also what spectators expect to see when they watch the game.

Third, the Christian is to play the sport within the rules of the game — while seeking to win completely (and this is what made Andrea Jaeger no longer capable of playing; she didn’t believe in the competition necessary to give the game integrity). Anything outside the rules is cheating and contrary to Christian living — and this is not to say that Christians aren’t tempted to cheat. 
Fourth, the Christian cannot intend to harm or maim another person; nor should the follower of Jesus do things that could harm or maim another person.
Fifth, the follower of Jesus ought to treat the other team members as persons. Example: it is not at all unusual for one team to refer to the good players on another team by their number. The Colts may well be referring to Drew Brees as #9 and not as “Drew Brees”. This depersonalizes the person, and I find this contrary to Christian principles. Do I think within the confines of a game, and therefore within the confines of a team’s preparation for another team (the Saints), it is legitimate and within the gospel life to call Brees #9? I suppose it’s legitimate, but it gets borderline to me.
Sixth, it follows that it is never acceptable — and Christians fail here at times — to hate the opponent or turn them into your enemy. You should be able to sit down with the players on the other team after the game and not be filled with animosity at them as persons. (I suggest it might take a while after a game to calm down from game psyche.)
Finally, competition is not the issue. Virtue is the issue. Competition is the name of the game in a world where there are fewer goods than there are purchasers, and sports are part of that kind of world. To compete within the confines of a game is not to cease being a cooperative person in society nor being a community-shaped person in the real world. 
So when I was a coach my idea, and I didn’t always achieve this, was simple: go out there and play as hard as you can to win, and when the game is over resume your life. But play within the rules.
And quit cussin.

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posted February 3, 2010 at 2:37 am

You said ” a sport creates a world unto itself and governed by its own rules,,,”
So that “other world where other rules apply” would be applicable to sex and business as well? I don’t buy it. As a practical (Christian) theologian, I believe that what you practice should apply across the board, whether in sports, business, personal life, religion, or politics.

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Mark Z.

posted February 3, 2010 at 4:20 am

So that “other world where other rules apply” would be applicable to sex and business as well?
No, that’s precisely the point. Sex and business are real life. Sports (and competitive games generally) exist in a magic circle, in which we pursue essentially arbitrary goals for the sake of drama, camaraderie, and challenge. I practice judo, which consists almost entirely of acts that would be extremely immoral in most other contexts, motivated by something very much like real aggression. But then we step off the mat and have a beer in real life where we’re friends. I think most competitors have the sense to do this.

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Richard H.

posted February 3, 2010 at 5:11 am

While sports is not much my thing, I can see some
useful characteristics if one chooses to apply them:
* requires discipline and dedication to be effective
* for team sports, cooperation is at least as important
as competition
* the challenge of balancing competitiveness and
* ample opportunity for community service, and for
quiet humility (seldom practiced!)
* ample opportunity to set an example, not so much to
the fans, as to the younger players
and for school-age folks:
* preferable to most unstructured activities
You folks do seem to be implying that boxing is
over the top, since _trying_ to win on points is hardly
the norm; in other words, the object is to knock out
the opponent. What about ice hockey (not inherently
combative, but frequently so)? How about sports that
may involve no intent to injure another, but are
quite dangerous? (search for “most dangerous sports”,
the results are surprising; rugby, yes, but also
cheerleading, various equine events, and even fishing,
although I’d chalk the latter up to alcohol,
carelessness, or lack of preparedness)

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posted February 3, 2010 at 8:34 am

Scot, this is interesting. I kept seeing parallels between sports and video games in your response.
If one enters the world of a violent video game and interacts according to the rules of that game is that the same as entering into a sporting competition? Neither are the real world and neither are intended to be.
I see teenagers deeply influenced by nearly everything thrown at them but it gets a bit old seeing their video games as a whipping boy. I submit that entering into their gaming worlds is a way to help them cope with some of the pressures put on them externally and in that sense it can be helpful for them. Of course, all things in moderation.

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posted February 3, 2010 at 8:45 am

my problem is more with overly-consumed fans than the players. Sports (particularly football here) are very much their real world and everything revolves around it. It really does become an idol in addition to being a waste of too much time, energy, focus, and money.

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posted February 3, 2010 at 8:58 am

Scot –
This may have been brought up on the earlier thread but I’m curious as to your thoughts on this article in the New York Times on evangelicals using the “sport” of MMA to “reach men” (editorial quotes all mine!) – I think it’s relevant to the discussion here:

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Scot McKnight

posted February 3, 2010 at 10:35 am

Jon, I breezed over that article but it’s a both-and, isn’t it? Yes, I think mutual interests could help some to see redemption in Christ while others would be turned off by the same.

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posted February 3, 2010 at 10:52 am

Scot –
Don’t you think that at the very least this sport in particular violates your point #4 above (I think I could push on some of the others as well): “Fourth, the Christian cannot intend to harm or maim another person; nor should the follower of Jesus do things that could harm or maim another person.”
I don’t want to turn the thread into a discussion of can/should Christians support or participate in MMA and I’m not doubting the utility of such an outreach – sure, you CAN get people to show up for an MMA church event – but at the very least I think it’s a test case for how far you can push the Christian/sports alliance – and in this case I think it goes too far.

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Josh Linton

posted February 3, 2010 at 11:56 am

Great discussion you’ve started here. My wife and I always discuss these issues in relation to the “game” Survivor.
How does what you’ve written above translate into that particular context? Or does it? Some enter Survivor with the intentions of integrity and others play the game i.e., backstabbing, manipulation, etc. Would love to hear your thoughts.

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posted February 3, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Hey Joey, I agree with you. I have a great time playing Halo with my son, though he beats me. I’m not great. I like Halo over the other combat games because, and this may seem silly, the aliens basically represent intelligent bugs, not humans made in God’s image. That probably sounds silly but I like it anyway :-)
It’s not an excuse to waste excessive amounts of time (all things in moderation, digital entertainment especially so!) but it is a chance to do something fun together, something the kids are often better at than the adults.

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posted February 3, 2010 at 2:55 pm

The concern about “depersonalizing the person” when referring to them by uniform number rather than name strikes me as pretty odd. It’s a lot easier to remember, and usually shorter to say, a uniform number rather than a name. In the case of a star player, it might also serve to “demystify” the star player a tiny bit and make your team less intimidated by him, by saying #9 rather than “Drew Brees” (although that latter is a stretch – all the players know who the other team’s stars are).
There are plenty of things for a Christian to be concerned about with regard to sports. But Scot, this doesn’t seem to be one of them to me. Worrying over this sounds akin to hand-wringing over whether it’s ok for a Christian to see a PG movie, or PG-13, or R. Kind of majoring in the wrong place, maybe.

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posted February 3, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I like your comments and think this is an oddly interesting topic. My concern with sports is not the games themselves–I agree with you, largely–but the surrounding environment. I moved to a new neighborhood and hence high school for the ninth grade. The first week of school we were taken into the gym for a “pep rally.” I had no idea what this was, but I was outraged (what a nerd!) to be pulled out of class. But then (not totally a nerd!) I thought, OK, cool. Then however, the cheerleaders led us (my high school began with an H and I’ll use a fake name) in “Heil Highview.” We stuck our hands in the air and heiled our school! I thought that was truly disturbed–and I was only 14! After that the football team brought out a mannequin dressed in the opposing team’s uniform and announced “this is what we are going to do to them!” They ripped the mannequin apart, tearing off arms and legs to cheers. I thought that was sick. I was 14 and I thought, OK, I do not belong here. I don’t like this. I would never have dreamed of breathing a word of protest but I shut down at that point and tuned out. I became alienateds. The problem, I like sports themselves, but I think the “surrounds” can be truly frightening and disturbing and not “just good fun.” My question is: was my high school over the top or is this “normal?” I don’t remember ever seeing anything like this on pregame shows on TV.

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Scot McKnight

posted February 3, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Diane, in my experience that is not the norm but it happens more than many think.
You may remember the high school incident some 20 years ago when a high school “staged” a shooting of himself, with ketchup and all. Well, that happened to be our high school; the coach was someone I knew; he’s a “warrior” kind of coach; I was a coach at the time and got a phone call one day in the coaches’ office from Brazil asking about the incident; … I could go on.
The point: sometimes coaches have gone overboard.

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posted February 3, 2010 at 7:32 pm

I think another valuable aspect of “games” is that they only have their meaning because they are played to a “limit”.
much like the human life is lived toward a “limit”, games are a participatory endeavor that recapitulates the essential character of life in the microcosm that is the game.
i think it is from this feature of games/sport that the tensions the original article tries to navigate arise.
that being said, i think the real problem for Christ followers is the exaltation of the “sports hero/god” beyond the pitch.
i.e. Tiger Woods. His failures are no more significant or tragic than a nameless man and our disappointment in him rises from our failure to understand that his status rises only from his handling ofa golf ball and should not go beyond that particular skill set.
To assume he has an obligation to live morally to our satisfaction because we are enthralled with his golf game is a silly assumption and our inevitable disappointment is really of our own making.

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posted February 3, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Good stuff Scot. Why do you think no one is really talking about this on all the evangelical blogs?

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Scot McKnight

posted February 3, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Matt, I haven’t been paying attention to how widespread this story is … maybe it’s not all that widespread because not that many are interested in theorizing about sport.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 9:49 am

Love this discussion! I pastor in a community with a heavy Apostolic Christian population. In their church, once a young person joins the church they can no longer participate in competitive athletics. Their belief is that competitive athletics tempts the Christian to actions and attitudes that do not glorify Jesus or His Church. What’s interesting is how big this issue really is with other Christians. I don’t hear Christians from other denominations discussing their view of baptism, salvation, and their belief in the exclusivity of their faith community as the only true church. The big problem? They don’t compete in sports. People say, “What a shame, John Doe was a great athlete, then he joined the apostolic church” or “I hope Jane Doe doesn’t join the church, she’s a great basketball player.” Even if you don’t agree with their position, I get nervous when I hear people elevate sports to the point of saying a young person should not join their church because of sports.
At the same time, my wife and I were both Div. I college track athletes. My wife is a track and cc coach. My dad and my brother, both great track athletes in their day, also coach. So, we spend a great deal of time around the sport of Track and Field. Our youngest daughter plays club soccer. Our son plays soccer and track. And our oldest daughter can take sports or leave them – she’s a singer. Having spent more hours than I can count engaged with sports as athlete, parent, coach, and spectator I can say without a doubt that the way singers treat one another relative to auditions is far more vicious than anything I have witnessed on the track or soccer pitch so far. They don’t punch each other, but they do everything they can to put others down in order to enhance their own chances of landing parts. So, it’s not just competitive sports, but any competitive endeavor that pits one person against another for a scare resource (lead in the musical, solo, starting quarterback, etc.). When you have to lose in order for me to win, aggressive self-centeredness has room to grow.

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posted February 4, 2010 at 11:52 am

Good post, Michaeldanner. I wonder about your statement:
“Even if you don’t agree with their position, I get nervous when I hear people elevate sports to the point of saying a young person should not join their church because of sports.”
What if the church flatly prohibited kids who have musical gifts (singing, or playing an instrument) from using those gifts in public because the use of such gifts tempts kids toward pride, and if done in a competitive environment, toward other unchristian behavior as you mention with regard to your own experiences with your daughter and singing?
I would have a problem with a church that issued such a prohibition; I’d think it cause for significant concern, and reason to question the healthiness of such a faith community. I see using one’s physical athletic gifts much the same as I see using one’s gifts for music, or drama. Do you see a difference?

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